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China is one place where students dream of going to an American college. U.S. higher education remains a magnet for foreign students generally, those who can afford to pay for it. NPR's Larry Abramson reports that American colleges and universities feel intense pressure, in return, to boost their exchange programs and especially to tap into the growing number of Chinese consumers who have the cash to study U.S. style.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Back in the 1980s, when China was first opening up, Johns Hopkins University was one of the first exchange programs to set up shop. The Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University is still going strong.

Professor ALEX HEIGLE (Center for Chinese and American Studies, Nanjing University): Who is the first one who proposed the idea we need to strike, and we need to get of the missiles?

ABRAMSON: Professor Alex Heigle discusses the fine points of the Cuban Missile Crisis to a class of 30 or so grad students, mostly Chinese. They learn in English. American students who come over take classes in Mandarin. The Hopkins program used to train a lot of future diplomats. Now, Heigle says students are focused on other goals.

Prof. HEIGLE: The vast majority of them are very interested in going into business. They've very interested in getting a very good-paying job.

ABRAMSON: Though Chinese universities are improving, few are seen as truly world class. Chinese students feel they have to have a stamp from a foreign university on their resume, and that often means traveling to the U.S.

Mr. DOMINIC BERARDI (EduGlobal, Beijing, China): There's the top 500 world universities.

ABRAMSON: Dominic Berardi sits in his office in Beijing. He shows me a Web page with the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Rankings, a guide many Chinese students use when deciding where to study abroad.

Mr. BERARDI: So if you look up the top 100 here, 55 of the top 100 are going to be in the U.S.

ABRAMSON: Berardi works for EduGlobal, an education consulting firm with 15 offices throughout China. He says his business is booming as Chinese incomes rise and families across the country seek out advice on which U.S. school to choose. Chinese families in remote areas are particularly dependent on ratings and on advisors like Berardi as they try to choose schools on the other side of the globe. Berardi says his firm collects its fees not from parents, but from the universities that feel they need to get a piece of the pie.

Mr. BERARDI: The brand name of Harvard or Berkeley speaks for itself. But when you look at the educational wealth, there is - I mean, you've got maybe 2,000 higher-education institutions. They get lost in the shuffle.

ABRAMSON: There was a drop in foreign students coming to the U.S. after 9/11, but that number is rebounding. Now it can be tough for smaller schools to make a name in China and other countries, but the need to make that imprint is more intense than ever.

Do you feel a competitive pressure that every other school has their fingers in China, you better too if you want to be able to raise money and recruit?

Mr. STEPHEN FOSTER (Vice President for International Affairs, Wright State University): Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: Stephen Foster is vice president for international affairs at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, a public school with about 17,000 students.

Mr. FOSTER: It's one of these situations where certainly everyone is doing it. There's a lot of competition for international students.

ABRAMSON: I caught up with Stephen Foster in a Beijing hotel. He was in town trying to revive a relationship with Beijing Normal University. That school used to have an exchange with Wright State, but the agreement withered because there weren't enough American students willing to go to China. Now, Foster says, Wright State wants to rekindle that relationship. He wants to convince American students they don't have to leave Ohio to start their careers.

Mr. FOSTER: We've been hemorrhaging students. Our young people graduate from our universities, and then they leave Ohio because they don't see job opportunities, economic opportunities, cultural advantages, and certainly, you know, the international dimension helps a great deal with that.

ABRAMSON: It's not clear that this effort to establish more of a global rep will staunch the flow of students and jobs out of Ohio. Nevertheless, the state sees recruitment of international students as a way to strengthen the state's economy.

Enrollment rosters at many schools may be full today, but the number of Americans applying to college is going to start dropping in the next couple of years. That will make it even more critical to look abroad. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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